Nation-wide elections concluded last week in India, the world’s largest democracy. In total, more than 530 million votes were cast, and while the final votes are still being tabulated, it is clear that voters gave Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) a majority in the country’s parliament.
The results representing a sharp defeat for the ruling Congress Party, which has been a central force in Indian politics since independence from Britain in 1947. The results also suggest that the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty, which dominated Indian politics since 1947, may have reached its end.
The elections were remarkable for a number of reasons. First, last week’s elections boasted the highest turnout in Indian history. More than 130 million new voters cast their ballot this year, meaning that the number of new voters in India was about the same as the total number of voters in the 2008 US presidential elections. Voter turnout in India was also quite high, with more than two-thirds of eligible voters casting ballots.
But the results were also fascinating. The election represents the first time in Indian history that a single party—other than the Congress Party—has captured an outright majority in the national parliament. This majority will make it much easier for the BJP to push through policies, as it will not need to rely on coalition partners for their support.
The election results were also interesting insofar as the head of the BJP and India’s newest Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, will be the first Indian Prime Minister born after the country achieved independence. For his supporters, this suggests that Modi will bring a new vision to India’s government. As a center-right Hindu nationalist party, the BJP has supported opening the Indian economy and pursuing a neoliberal program of economic development. This message resonated with many young voters, who view economic development as a key political objective and who had grown tired of the Congress Party’s inability to deliver on promises of jobs.
It’s important to remember, though, that while capturing an outright majority of the seats in parliament, the BJP received only about one-third of the popular vote. This is because India’s single-member district system—a system similar to the one used in Canada, Great Britain, and the United States—tends to exacerbate the margin of victory. As an editorial in the Washington Post points out, the BJP will capture a majority of the seats in the parliament despite winning just 31 percent of the popular vote. Unlike a proportional representation system which allocates seats in the parliament based on the proportion of the vote received, a single-member district election sends one representative to parliament for each district, with no requirement that that candidate receive a majority of the vote. When multiple parties contest the seat, it makes it increasingly possible (indeed, increasingly likely) that the winging party will capture the seat with a plurality rather than a majority of the vote.
So with an outright majority in parliament, the BJP appears well positioned to enact its agenda. At the same time, the unique nature of this year’s elections—particularly dependent on the strong showing of various regional parties which helped to fracture the vote in individual states—raise the question of whether or not the BJP will be able to hold on to its gains in the next national election.